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Culture, history and society

2020 Sam Edwards Medal and Prize

Dame Julia Higgins for her pioneering work in neutron scattering applied to the understanding of polymer structure and dynamics.

Dame Julia Higgins 2020 Sam Edwards Medal and Prize winner

Dame Julia Higgins DBE FRS FREng has made major contributions to polymer physics through the application of neutron and light-scattering experimental techniques over several decades.

As the neutron-scattering techniques were developed at the international neutron-scattering facilities from the 70s onwards, Higgins was one of the first to apply them to outstanding questions about polymeric structure, thermodynamics and motion.

Her pioneering experiments with small-angle neutron scattering shed light into the conformation of polymer chains in melts, blends and solutions; employing neutron spin-echo, Higgins and her team provided the first direct evidence for reptation and the tube concept and, with quasi-elastic neutron scattering, resolved fast polymer dynamics at molecular scales.

With neutron reflectivity, the interfacial (nanoscale) width between immiscible and inter-diffusion between miscible polymers was first quantified, with significant practical consequences for the design of mechanically robust interfaces.

Her book (co-authored with Henri Benoit and published in 1995) is a careful tutorial explaining the potential and limitations of neutrons in polymer science, and how data should be interpreted in various contexts.

Through the wide use of this textbook, through teaching and research collaborations, Higgins has educated a large number of current polymer scientists and ensured that neutron scattering is applied widely, with extensive societal impact.

In recent years she has focused on polymer blends and mixtures, with ramifications to the design of polymer membranes and solar cells, as well as composites.

Overall, Higgins’ lifetime work underpins crucial aspects of the molecular understanding of polymer structure and dynamics.